The Tower Project: Interview with climber Tim Coats
December 2nd, 2019
Salt Lake City, UT
Note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
Keywords: climbing, climber, tower, pitch, route, Sedona, Texas Tower, crack, bolts, Dream Speaker Tower, spire, rappel, Bret Ruckman, cams, canyon, Bears Ears, desert, John Ritchie
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me your name and when you started climbing?
Tim Coats: My name is Tim coats and I live in Salt Lake City. I started probably around when I was 13 years old. I grew up in northwestern New Mexico. My brother got into rappelling, like some people did back then, and he taught me how to do it. After we rappelled off every cliff we could find, we got bored with that and started figuring out ways to climb up. It was probably 1972-73 - no, it would have been ‘75.
Matt Jenkins: What part of New Mexico? What did your parents do?
Tim Coats: It was Farmington, New Mexico, right on the Four Corners. We could see Shiprock from our house window, so that was really cool. My dad was a doctor. My mom worked for him.
Matt Jenkins: How did they end up in Farmington?
Tim Coats: My dad went to medical school in Oklahoma City and he grew up during the Depression. He always wanted to go to the Boy Scout Camp in New Mexico, so always had this idealized thing of New Mexico. When he got out of medical school, they needed a doctor there so he moved there and lived there for 45 years.
Matt Jenkins: And what did your mom do?
Tim Coats: She work for him. She was his receptionist at his office.
Matt Jenkins: Was it a private practice?
Tim Coats: Yeah, so he's a family practice. He did everything - minor surgery and delivered babies - typical small town doctor.
Matt Jenkins: Where were you guys going when you were going to rappel?
Tim Coats: Literally across the street, there are these big bluffs with just terrible, terrible sandstone rock. So we went and would go rappel off of those. Then we started climbing. We didn't really have much gear, so the only thing we could really climb without dying were chimneys. I got really good at chimneys, which came in handy later in my career, actually good. As a little kid, you could wedge yourself in there.
Matt Jenkins: Did your parents expose you to the outdoors? Or, who did?
Tim Coats: My dad was a hunter and fisherman, so we liked to travel. We went to all of the national parks in the Four Corners area - and went to Lake Powell all the time - backpacking in the San Juans. From since I was six - I started backpacking. The best fishing was deep in the San Juans, so we would go backpacking so we could fish.
Matt Jenkins: Did your dad do any rappelling or climbing?
Tim Coats: Nah. They had no idea what we were doing. We just went out and did our thing. They weren't climbers at all.
Matt Jenkins: Was there somebody? Did your brother get exposed to it then?
Tim Coats: Yeah. My brother in high school got into rappelling, and then, fortunately, he's six years older. He went to Fort Lewis College, and, fortunately, he fell in with real climbers. They taught him how to climb and then he taught me how - passed down his old climbing gear when he got new stuff and learned how to climb that way.
Matt Jenkins: What was he studying at Fort Lewis? Who are some of those people?
Tim Coats: John Ritchie, who kind of features later in the story, because he's the one that found both Dream Speaker and Texas Tower was a professor at at Fort Lewis College. He was one of the main guys. I can't remember most of the other people's names. He was a professor and I don't know what my brother was studying there. He pretty much flunked out, because he was climbing full-time. Actually, Ritchie was one of his professors, which is kind of funny. He was flunking his course and then climbing with him on the weekends. Weird relationship.
He went on to get back into school. He went to NAU and graduated there. He got his masters and now he's a professor at the “U” now. He straightened out.
Matt Jenkins: Sounds like a great academic career.
Tim Coats: Yeah, for sure.
Matt Jenkins: What was Ritchie teaching?
Tim Coats: I think Richie was geology.
Matt Jenkins: What was your brother studying?
Tim Coats: I think he was geology at that time. He got his Bachelor's in Psychology and his Master's in Quaternary Studies.
Matt Jenkins: Was your brother traveling back and forth quite a bit between college and home?
Tim Coats: No, he pretty much left. The problem was we got our are climbing gear from him. I remember we actually did a first ascent of a tower and we just had a single sling that we used as a diaper sling to climb, but then we had to rappel off so we had to leave the sling for the summit for the anchor, and do body rappels. Then we had to wait six weeks for my brother to come back down to get another sling. We didn't have gear for a while so we couldn’t climb that six weeks.
Matt Jenkins: How did you get exposed to the gear, tools, and techniques?
Tim Coats: He showed me and then when he would get new gear he would sell me his old gear. First, we had some pitons, because they got nuts. He handed down his pitons so we would go bash pitons in the crack, and pull them back out with our fingers. Then he got into aid climbing so he wanted his pitons back, so then we got some of his nuts. Then we would use the nuts. It was before cams. We were just using passive nuts, which didn't really work very well in some of the stuff down there.
The guy I was climbing with got into football in junior high so I lost my partner. I was out bouldering one day and this older high school kid was out there. He was actually doing one of my boulder problems, because basically nobody climbed. I thought that was really weird. When I talked to him, he was trying to figure out climbing. I looked like I was about seven years old. I was little - probably looked like I was eight years old. I look like a very little kid, but I could do all these hard boulder problems he couldn't do. I taught him how to climb, but the beauty of that was he had a car. Now we could go places. We started going to Durango to climb. We ended up going to Castleton and climbing Castleton. I was like 16 - just he and I. My parents had no idea what we were doing. We came down in the dark and there wasn't much of a trail at the time. We totally missed the trip the right way. We went through all of those shale bands. It was just totally epic, but we got off the thing. Yeah, it was cool.
Matt Jenkins: What was his name?
Tim Coats: Mike Smith. He lives in Albuquerque. My my sister lives in Albuquerque and he's a librarian now. She sees him every once in a while, but I haven’t talked to him in a long time.
Matt Jenkins: Which route on Castleton?
Tim Coats: The Kor-Ingalls. It had the original bolts in it - it’s like a #11 hex - I think I aided off the original Kor bolt on the crux which was sticking out about that far. It was pretty epic.
Matt Jenkins: Kind of like Texas Tower?
Tim Coats: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
Matt Jenkins: How old were you at the time?
Tim Coats: I was probably 16 when I did Castleton.
Matt Jenkins: Did you climb through high school and what led you to NAU?
Tim Coats: My brother left Fort Lewis and went to NAU. The climbing in Durango at the time was alright, but not great. Then he moved to Flagstaff, because Ritchie came from Flagstaff. He knew the climbing scene there. There was a climbing shop called the Alpineer that my brother worked in, and I took some trips over there to climb. When I graduated, I really wanted to go to Flagstaff, because it seemed like a magical place, which is awesome climbing, a really neat community. There I majored in climbing for the first four years.
Matt Jenkins: What did you study in college? Who were you hanging around with at that time?
Tim Coats: I studied biology. The Alpineer had the Alpineer crew - Scott Baxter owned the Alpineer and Lee Dexter were co-owners of the Alpineer. Larry was working there. His partner Dugald Bremner was a very good climber - Jim Haisley, Paul Davidson, Dave Dawson, were the main core people. Russ Hardwick. Quite a few people.
Matt Jenkins: Was your community mostly associated with the store or were you meeting folks through school?
Tim Coats: Mostly through the store. I did meet Tim Toula through school. He was in one of my geology classes. He had just actually climbed Earth Angel with John Gault. John Gault never told him that it was actually a tower. They had this huge epic and got off route - did some scary face traverse. They got to the summit and Tim was just thinking, “Thank God I can just walk off.” He looked out and it's six rappels to get off. John Gault was a great climber, but he was very quiet and didn't really say much, so he never really bothered to tell Tim that they were actually climbing a tower.
Matt Jenkins: Had it been climbed at the time?
Tim Coats: Yeah, so Scott and Ross Hardwick had done the first ascent, but they did it fairly early and it was one of those things that was a rite of passage to climb Earth Angel, because it is a big, tall tower down in Sedona. It had some pretty hard climbing on it.
Matt Jenkins: Where did you study in school then? What was your relationship of school to climbing?
Tim Coats: Well, I never finished up at NAU. I ended up finishing up here at the “U,” but definitely climbing was first and school was second, unfortunately.
Matt Jenkins: That's great.
Matt Jenkins: So you were there for four years and then transferred up here?
Tim Coats: Well, I was there for about five years. Then I ended up not graduating and moving to Boulder, Colorado. I lived there for three or four years - three years. Then I came to Salt Lake - finished up here.
Matt Jenkins: What brought you to Salt Lake?
Tim Coats: So really the skiing, and also just the access to the desert. I took a couple trips out here to go skiing and was just blown away by how good it was. So I just came out here.
Matt Jenkins: So yeah, it's clear that you've been interested in the outdoors since you were little. What do you think drew you to the outdoors? And, specifically, what drew you to climbing?
Tim Coats: I don’t know. We just spent all of our time in the outdoors, because where we lived, we were basically right on the edge of the wilderness. You could just go out, wander around, even before my brother got into climbing. We had two climbing books in our library, Americans on Everest. I forgot who wrote that. Then, Straight Up about John Harlin by James Ramsey Ullman. They're two climbing books. I read those in elementary school and I did book reports on them. I was really fascinated by mountain climbing, so I was always just really attracted to it. We had cliffs everywhere around our house. I had a sister and she was probably the best climber of the three of us. She could scramble up everything. We just spent our whole youth just scrambling up rocks everywhere. It was just a natural fit, I think. Then once my brother got into it, it just really clicked. I saw what was out there.
Matt Jenkins: Were you drawn to the wilderness then?
Tim Coats: Yeah, definitely. I loved going out. I mean, again, when I was a kid, we backpacked every summer - three or four big long trips in the Weminuche Wilderness. We would be out for 10 day trips. I really enjoyed that.
Matt Jenkins: Does your sister climb still?
Tim Coats: She never really got into climbing. As a kid, she could always do better than anybody else. She probably would have been a natural. Her daughter now has been climbing in the gym, which is really cool. She's kind of getting into it.
Matt Jenkins: Do they live up here?
Tim Coats: They live in Albuquerque.
Matt Jenkins: What is she?
Tim Coats: She's an engineer. She just retired but she's a mechanical engineer.
Matt Jenkins: What drew you to the desert? And when did you start going to the desert? You mentioned you went to Castleton. What was your progression? And, what was drawing you to towers?
Tim Coats: Going there and seeing towers, as a kid, we'd go to Monument Valley. Just looking at those, they're just so spectacular. We read an Ascent magazine, or something, about Castleton. That got us to go do that. Even before I went to NAU, just going to visit my brother there, we would drive down to Sedona and Larry pointed out all these climbs - the Mace, Pointed Dome, the Acropolis, and all of those towers down there. So I just really wanted to go down and climb those. As soon as I moved into NAU in Flagstaff, we would climb in Sedona all of the time.
Matt Jenkins: Where are you getting your information from? You mentioned Ascend and a couple books from the library. What were some early influential sources?
Tim Coats: My brother always had Mountain magazine - that was big - which is a British magazine. Then Climbing magazine came out. That was the main thing. There's the American Alpine Journal, we’d look at. There weren’t really any desert guidebooks. But one of the ones that I remember that really stood out was Chuck Pratt’s The View from Deadhorse Point. It was in Ascent magazine. I just remember as soon as I read that, that I just wanted to go climb towers, because it was such a great article and really romanticized climbing in the desert.
Matt Jenkins: How did you find Chuck Pratt’s article?
Tim Coats: I think Larry had it. My brother had it. I think it was in Ascent. Ascent came out once a year. It had pictures of these guys just doing these offwidths with just the rope hanging down, with nothing in it on the way down - really crazy. Then a few years later - many years later - there's another Ascent with a bunch of Brian Becker and Ed Webster doing a lot of routes at Indian Creek, places like that. Just seeing that stuff was really inspiring.
Matt Jenkins: Did you have much specific information then, because these are mostly trip reports?
Tim Coats: Yeah, I mean certainly Sedona. There was a little shop guide, so the Alpineer had access. They had the original Kamps’ topo for the Mace and for Pointed Dome, and things like that. Sedona I had a pretty good idea, but not really anything else like up in Bears Ears, Cedar Mesa, or other stuff up on the Colorado Plateau.
Matt Jenkins: What did you like about Chuck Pratt’s article?
Tim Coats: The view of the desert. I just reread it not too long ago. One of my favorite parts was that they said that every trip to climb in the Colorado Plateaus is a success even if they didn't get up anything. They had the best time when they just put away their pitons and ropes and just walked around the desert. It's just such a magical place. The climbing is amazing - but, as I've gotten older, it's almost like when you're at the base of the climb, you're just looking over at these ridges and mesas and valleys and canyons, and wondering what's there. It's just really a privilege to be able to go explore some of that stuff.
Matt Jenkins: I want to backtrack a little bit. You were talking about sources of information that inspired you. Would you go through that list again?
Tim Coats: Sure. There weren't really guidebooks to the southwest. Most of the information would come from Ascent magazine or the American Alpine Club journal. Things like that. I think Fifty Classic Climbs came out. I think that had Castleton and the Titan on it. That was really cool to see, but one that really stood out was the View from Deadhorse Point. It was written by Chuck Pratt about climbing a lot of the classic towers. It was in Ascent magazine. He came out and did the Spider Rock, Castleton, and some other climbs on the reservation. That was just really inspiring. The photos were just amazing - just these guys with the rope tied around their waist, 40 feet up, with just the rope dangling down this offwidth. It's really inspiring to see that and it really excited me to go out - maybe try to do some of that stuff although it looked incredibly intimidating.
Matt Jenkins: What are some of the towers that you started climbing at that time specifically in southeast Utah in Bears Ears?
Tim Coats: The first one we did was Castleton and then I mostly climbed in Sedona. Really the first time I got up there was when we did Dream Speaker. So that was the first one I had done up there.
Matt Jenkins: So you were climbing in Sedona. So, what was the first tower you climbed up there?
Tim Coats: The very first tower I did was Streaker Spire, which is a really fun 5.7 climb in Sedona. We did quite a few towers, even some first ascents in Sedona. But, the first tower I did other than Castleton in the Bears Ears area was the Dream Speaker Spire in Arch Canyon.
Matt Jenkins: How did you hear about Dream Speaker? Who did you go up with?
Tim Coats: John Ritchie was a friend of Scott Baxter, who was one of the co-owners of the Alpineer. Scott was really the patriarch of climbing in northern Arizona. He was one of the first people to do hard routes, like on Granite Mountain. He pioneered a lot of the climbing there. John Ritchie was a friend of his. John Ritchie had gotten into hiking. He hiked a lot around there and he had gone into Arch Canyon and just seen these towers everywhere. He told Scotty about it, so they decided to go up to try to climb Dream Speaker. They went up. Scotty is a really, really good climber - but, like all of us, as we get older - he was probably in his mid 40s at that time and cycled in and out of climbing. I think they went up on the climb and didn't get very far, and bailed. That's when Scotty recruited me as the rope gun to go back up. That's when we went up and did it with John Ritchie and another guy Gary Regerra, which is a friend of John Richie from Durango.
Matt Jenkins: Can you describe Dream Speaker, the style of the climb, and where it's located?
Tim Coats: Yes, … Dream speaker is a tower in Arch Canyon. And, Arch Canyon is between where Canyonlands is and down a little bit to the west of where Blanding, UT is. It's a pretty remote place. There's a road that goes into Arch Canyon, but it's a really rugged Jeep road. The way we approached it is from the rim. Arch Canyon has all these pretty big towers, quite a few freestanding pinnacles and with spectacular routes. Dream Speaker - if you view it looking to the west - it's very, very narrow. It looks like the Totem Pole. If you look at it from other angles, it's actually wider. It looks extremely narrow, and it's also on a pedestal. When you start the first pitch, you're four or 500 feet off the ground at that point. Even though it's only a two pitch route, it feels much more like a much bigger tower and much more spectacular. There's a very clean line on the south face. It is just a thin hands crack on the first pitch and then just this big ol’ burly offwidth on the second pitch - just this crack that just splits right down the middle.
Matt Jenkins: Did you lead the pitches?
Tim Coats: Yes.
Matt Jenkins: Do you know about what year it was when you were doing that?
Tim Coats: I looked at Desert Rock, my reference, Eric Bjornstad’s book. It says 1984 so I think I would have been 22 years old.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think prepared you to go climb Dream Speaker from your experiences in Sedona? It’s obviously still a pretty hard spire.
Tim Coats: Yeah. The good thing about as a kid just spending a lot of time climbing chimneys is that I was really comfortable being really far out in a chimney. Climbing in Sedona - I've read on Mountain Project about how horrible the rock on Dream Speaker is, but, to me, it seemed like a lot of rock we were climbing in Sedona, sometimes even slightly better. I was pretty comfortable on loose rock and very soft rock. I felt pretty comfortable there, but it was a hard route for sure. It was quite scary - just the exposure - we had some difficulties on it. Which you always do. It was a neat climb to have done. I'm glad we pulled it off free too, which was pretty cool, because it's the first route up there. A lot of the routes, even today - which they're very difficult - but, they have a lot of aid. We were able to - we picked a line that would go free, which is what we're interested in. I was a terrible aid climber anyway. We were just interested in doing free routes.
Matt Jenkins: What interested you about doing free routes?
Tim Coats: That was the ethic in Flagstaff at the time was to do things free. Scotty did a lot of free and aid routes at Granite Mountain - just doing hard routes and doing them free. That was just what we liked to do. We're climbing at Paradise Forks so we were pretty good at crack climbing.
Matt Jenkins: What role do you think ethics played in your development as a climber and the things you sought out?
Tim Coats: Flagstaff - and, Arizona in general - ethics were in very high regard for people like Steve Grossman and Scott Baxter. When I lived in Flagstaff, it was known as a non-chalk area. People didn't even use chalk. Definitely was ground up. Minimize bolts as much as possible. Boldness was definitely - for me, a hard road was great, but a bold route was what you really aspired towards.
It was guys like Scotty and Steve Grossman, and people like that, some of the Tucson climbers. They were just incredibly bold climbers. That was really, to me, the pinnacle - was to be able to do something bold and scary. If you could do something that nobody could ever do the second ascent of, that was that was pretty cool.
Today, I would never want to do those roots. I like doing well protected. climbs, but it was the ethic of the time - ground up, minimize the bolts, do it all clean, and do it all free.
Matt Jenkins: How do you see your evolution as a climber over time?
Tim Coats: That's still the peak. As I've gotten older, I've gotten to appreciate sport climbing and good protection, because it's just a lot more fun. I put in a route on Summit Block called Dr. Rubo’s Wild Ride, which is one of the most popular routes in Sedona. When we did it we were like, “that’s OK.” It wasn’t hard or anything. But, now, in retrospect, it's like, “Yeah, that's an awesome route.” It's just some great climbing and it's really accessible to a lot of people. But, at the time, it was just an easy route, so it didn't really make that big of impression on me.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think some of the most important or meaningful climbs to you that you have done throughout your career as a climber?
Tim Coats: I think Dream Speaker was definitely one. There's a route down in Sedona called Coffee Pot Rock, and it's got a big, scary offwidth on it. John Mattson and I did the first ascent of that. I thought that was pretty cool. There's a hard, really, really, horrible aid line on the Mace called When Sand and Stars. Bobbi Bensman and I did the first free ascent - kind of a variation of that which was really cool. There's a route called Rich’s Ladder down in Sedona which is up high in Oak Creek. We did the first ascent of that. I don't think it's had a second ascent. Another one I did with Grossman is called The Creamery in Sedona, Oak Creek Canyon. It's never had a second ascent either, probably won’t. Grossman led a pretty scary pitch on that, but those definitely stand out. Routes nobody does - because they're stupid roots and they’re lose, but they left a big impression on me, for sure.
Matt Jenkins: Was dream speaker part of a climbing trip?
Tim Coats: We went up to specifically climb Dream Speaker. That was the plan. Scotty drove his old truck and then we met Gary, John. They drove down from Durango.
Matt Jenkins: So you did the Dream Speaker climb. What was your experience on Texas Tower? Can you tell me what led to that climb?
Tim Coats: For Texas Tower - John Ritchie found Dream Speaker and so we did that. Then John kept hiking around there. He went into Texas Canyon and saw Texas Tower, so he sent a picture to Scotty of Texas Tower. We're like, “Wow, look at that thing. It’s huge.” You see the crazy cracks on the south face, but we were a little traumatized from doing Dream Speaker. We weren't ready to go run back out and do Texas Tower.
I ended up telling Stan Mish about it. Stan is definitely a go getter. He went out with Tim Toula to try to do a route on it - got super close to the end. Almost got to the top, and bailed. Then, Tim Toula and his girlfriend went back and did the first ascent of that. That always stuck in my craw - because, I didn't, I wasn't really ready to go do it, but at the same time, I was like, it would be cool to go do it.
I moved to Boulder at that point and met Bret Ruckman. Bret and I went did the third ascent of Dream Speaker. We went back and did another ascent of that. I kept trying to talk him into the Texas Tower. We'd been doing a lot of climbing in the desert at that point. I finally talked him into going down to do Texas Tower.
Matt Jenkins: So you convince Bret to go do Texas Tower. What was the actual climb like?
Tim Coats: Interesting climb. We drove to the rim is how we did it, rapped in. We did a couple of rappels, then hiked up to the base. So the idea was to try to do it free. We didn't know if it had been done free yet, but we really wanted to do it free, because that is what we like to do. At that point I hadn't been climbing quite as much, because I was up in Salt Lake at that time because it was 1991. Bret was still in Boulder. We met there.
Bret at that point was really going to be my rope gun, because I knew that it had a big, hard offwidth pitch on it. That was Bret's pitch, for sure. It was decided. We got to the base of the climb and the sun is coming up, because we started in the dark. We pull out our gear and Bret pulls his shoes out. He has his left climbing shoe and then he has his wife's left climbing shoe, which is the same model in a size five. He's like a size 11, so basically he has one climbing shoe. Fortunately, he is wearing at least a pair of approach shoes so he does have some shoes with sticky rubber. Of course with Bret it is like, “Well, we're going to do the climb anyway.” He's like, “Well, you have to lead the crux pitch.” I was like, “Oh yeah, we'll see about that.” We got up on it and it was loose. I don't really remember a ton about it - a lot of loose chimney, not super great belays.
We got to the crux pitch which is a big, big offwidth - you look up and there's a couple of baby angles that hang out about halfway. I started up on the pitch. To me all that climbing is no fall terrain. You just don't fall off here. You either feel completely confident that you can do it or you bail. I climbed up about 20 feet. I'm like, “Yeah, I'm not feeling - I don't think I can do this pitch now.” I'm like, “Bret, It's yours.”
Of course Bret is such an amazing climber that he was able to free that pitch with an approach shoe on one foot and a climbing shoe on the other foot. It's very impressive. From there I just remember a couple hundred feet of big, run out, scary chimneys to the top. We got to top right at dark, rappelled off in the dark, hiked out in the dark, and jumared back up - got back to car about 230 in the morning.
Matt Jenkins: Do you think Bret’s shoe situation helped up on the offwidth?
Tim Coats: No. His shoe situation did not help. It was just Bret's determination to get up the thing. He actually did a lot of like face moves. I remember he wasn't in the offwidth the whole time. He was actually using some face holds and stuff throwing his foot out there. I mean, it just didn't matter. He could have done it in Nike running shoes probably. He's just that good of a climber that - sure, it helps if you have climbing shoes, but he was he was going to do that pitch and he did it.
Matt Jenkins: Then how did the rest of the climb go from there? Did you swap leads?
Tim Coats: We swung on every lead except for that pitch. I let him lead that one. I just remember endless chimneys on no gear on it - run out the whole whole pitch. The last four, three or four pitches, it seems like it's just a big giant chimney system that you definitely don't want to fall on.
Matt Jenkins: Why do you think everybody seems to get to the summit Texas Tower in the dark and have a little misadventure going down?
Tim Coats: It's a long way to get in there, first of, so you've got that. It's something like nine pitches. It's a long route and it's time consuming. The pitches don't go fast because they're offwidths, chimneys, and it wanders around a lot. It just takes a long time. Plus, desert season - you typically do it in the spring and fall when the days are shorter. You also don’t have as much daylight.
Matt Jenkins: Why do you think Texas Tower has earned the reputation it has? And did it have that reputation at the time you went out there?
Tim Coats: It didn't. It had been done a couple, a handful of times, probably three or four times. I think some bolts and some pins have been added. It was in Eric Bjornstad’s guidebook. There was a very spectacular picture of it. Short of Spider Rock, it's one of the bigger towers out there. If you're into towers, and especially into remote towers, it definitely draws you in, because it's very spectacular. It's an extremely spectacular setting. The line is pretty spectacular too.
Matt Jenkins: Did you come in off Texas Flat Road? Did you leave a rope fixed?
Tim Coats: Yes, we came in from Texas Flat Road, so we rapped in. We used the description in the Bjornstad book. You rap in right near the mouth of Texas Canyon and Arch Canyon. We did two rappels and left two ropes fixed. You end up walking quite a ways up Texas Canyon before you actually get into where you can see the tower. I'm not sure if that's how people do it today if they rap a little closer, but I remember we walked for quite a while up the canyon before we got to it.
Matt Jenkins: Right. And, what was the situation like on the descent in the dark?
Tim Coats: There were several single bolt rappels. I remember one rappel off of just a jammed know, which was a little scary. You could barely even see it. I think it was dark, but fortunately the ropes pulled. We were pretty good at making sure the ropes didn't get stuck. That was the main concern - didn’t want to prussik back up because we didn’t have jumars. You bail off the other side, and start going, and hopefully the anchors are okay.
Matt Jenkins: That's funny. When we were going off also in the dark. I think the headlamps are probably a little bit brighter now. I’ve got my super bright Zebra light and I’m swinging around. There are anchors all over that face.
Tim Coats: Oh, really?
Matt Jenkins: It's mostly natural anchors but knot chocks, slung blocks.
Tim Coats: Oh, really?
Tim Coats: It's had a lot more traffic. When we did it there was just the one set of anchors coming down.
Matt Jenkins: That's funny. We originally tried to go off the south face, because there's a descent described that way.
Tim Coats: Oh, is there?
Matt Jenkins: I don't think these anchors exist.
Tim Coats: Good thing to know.
Matt Jenkins: That was pretty funny. Can you describe the equipment that existed at the time? Now people are trying to go with as much modern wide gear as possible. What was it like for you guys?
Tim Coats: When we did Dream Speaker - so, Friends, camming devices, really came out in 1979, which is right when I got into college. We climbed a lot in Flagstaff in Paradise Forks, which had nice, parallel cracks, with Friends. They went from a number one Friend, which is kind of finger sized to a number four friend, which was fist size, and stopped right there. As long as you were in that range, it was great. Once you got into the wider stuff, what we had were tube chocks, which are just big pieces of round nuts. When we did Dream Speaker, the first pitch is nice hands, so it was very protectable. Then the second pitch was basically number four friends through a roof, and then just full-on offwidth to the top. So, I just used tube chocks on that, which was pretty scary actually. I remember I actually took it tube chalk and pulled it out, and put it above me, climbed pass it, pulled it out and put it above me. Kind of like you push up cams today. I did that a few times and eventually it got to wide for even that. I just put my body in.
When we climbed Texas Tower, there still weren't camming devices bigger than number fours, but there were some homemade ones that were out there. I had a homemade one that a guy down in Phoenix had made that was like a number five or so. We took that on Texas Tower. That was our ace in the hole for the offwidth pitch, but it's pretty wide anyway. I remember it being pretty tipped out so it didn't really exactly inspire confidence. We basically had tube chocks and a couple homemade, big camming devices.
Matt Jenkins: Who was the guy that made the camming devices? Do you know, are they still being made?
Tim Coats: I don't think so. I bought it when I was in Flag in 1985 or 86 - a guy named Brian Sarny. He was making them in his garage.
Matt Jenkins: Did he make anything bigger than number five?
Tim Coats: He might have down the road, but at that time, he just had the number fives.
Matt Jenkins: I can imagine that the crux pitch, a number of pitches on Texas Tower, were a little run out.
Tim Coats: It was definitely run out. I remember a lot of pitches where you just pretty much climbed the whole pitch without pretty much anything in. Anything you did get in wasn’t terribly good anyway, because sometimes it's behind a loose block.
Matt Jenkins: Were you pretty tied in to the development of climbing gear at the time? What role did the development of Friends play in your development as a climber?
Tim Coats: I was fortunate that, as a kid, I remember the Forest catalog - Bill Forrest would make pitons, alternatives to the stuff Chounaird was making. When I moved to Boulder I was working in Neptune Mountaineering. That was right in the heart of all the climbing stuff. When I was in Flagstaff, Steve Byrne had just moved there. He was the one that made the first TCUs. I got some of the very early ones of those, which was really fun to go climb all of those little finger cracks we couldn't do at the Forks, because we didn't have nuts that would fit them. It was awesome when those things came out. Definitely. It didn't make the climbing easier, but it definitely made the climbing safer.
Matt Jenkins: Do you think you were able to push your limits a little bit more because of the technology?
Tim Coats: Yeah. Definitely when new gear came out, it made a big difference - that you could just do stuff - people could do it before, but it just made it a lot safer, especially cracks. The bolting technology changed a lot too - and the bolting ethics - that people were more willing to put in bolts to just have a nice safe anchor. That made a big difference too. There are a lot of beautiful lines that won’t protect, but if you put in a bolt it protects quite well.
Matt Jenkins: Did you generally seek out more natural lines?
Tim Coats: Yeah, trom our trad climbing ethics in Flagstaff - it's definitely the natural lines. I put in a few sports in Boulder, but definitely the natural lines attracted me.
Matt Jenkins: Did you have any other experiences climbing around the Bears Ears?
Tim Coats: We did the first ascent of Dream Speaker. I went back and did the third ascent. That route on Texas Tower. Climbed on Mexican Hat. Did the Bandido Route on Mexican Hat. Climbed in Indian Creek in the Bridger Jacks quite a bit. Drove through the Valley of the Gods, looked at all the towers, and decided they weren't for us.
Matt Jenkins: Can you tell me about your experience in the Bridger Jacks?
Tim Coats: My first experience in that whole area, Canyonlands and Indian Creek, was with Tim Toula and John Matson. Tim had gone up with Stan and climbed in Indian Creek. This was way before there were guidebooks. There were pictures of Ed Webster doing Supercrack of the Desert, but you just saw that one picture. Tim and Stan went up to climb in Indian Creek and Tim Toula came back and told me, “There's this place. It's crazy. The rock is perfect and every five feet there's a perfect crack.” He was describing Indian Creek.
So John, Tim, and I drove up and climbed in Indian Creek. I think we just climbed main stuff off the road. We didn't see a single climber the entire time. Then we went and did Moses - a free route on Moses - pretty early back then. Climbing in the Bridgers came later on when I was living up here. After climbing Texas Tower - well, actually after climbing Dream Speaker and in Sedona - just getting on Wingate for the first time was a real eye opener, because, wow, this is just amazing stuff. Super fun, but just the rock is so much better.
Matt Jenkins: Yeah. Definitely, What are some of the specific routes you did in the Bridger Jacks?
Tim Coats: I didn't do much in the Bridger Jacks. I've done King of Pain. What else? I can't remember what else, actually.
Matt Jenkins: And, then Mexican Hat…
Tim Coats: Yeah, the Bandito Route. We did that the day after we did Texas Tower. So we got off it, get back to the car at 230. So we were pretty blown. We drove down to climb the Bandito Route. It's pretty exciting. You get on top, and I made Bret stand on the opposite side, because you really just felt like the whole thing was gonna fall over, because you look at that tiny little pedestal it's on. That's a neat route. It's a pretty cool route.
Matt Jenkins: Yeah, it seems like a good plan B after Texas Tower.
Tim Coats: Yeah, yeah, exactly. We're like, “Let's do something easy.” The next day was when we drove through Valley of the Gods and decided to go back up to Indian Creek and climb something more appealing.
Matt Jenkins: Definitely. You have obviously climbed a lot of different towers. What do you think climbing has taught you about yourself over time?
Tim Coats: I guess climbing has given me the sense of accomplishment and just the willingness to know that you can push yourself really hard and you can do things that seem kind of unlikely at first. I've used that in other outdoor activities as well - when you learn about climbing - when things get difficult and seems like you can't do it, that, often times, if you just persevere, you can do it. It really pushes yourself in ways that a lot of other activities don't. You really learn to push yourself. That's what I think I learned in climbing.
Matt Jenkins: How do you think places like Bears Ears, Indian Creek, or Texas Canyon can push yourself or inspire?
Tim Coats: The scenery is just so awe inspiring. Oftentimes you're quite remote, so no one else is really around. You’re not really showing off for the crowds. People aren't watching. Just being in the wilderness and wild areas is just really a great place to be. You're doing something kind of outrageous and athletic; and it's just really a wild place. It's just really fun and exciting.
Matt Jenkins: How has your perception and relationship to the Bears Ears changed over time?
Tim Coats: When I did a ton of climbing in the area - then once I met my wife and started going with her and climbing - we would go down and climb in the San Rafael Swell, Canyonlands, climb all over. She would always - she was a climber, but not quite like in love what it like I was. She'd always be looking off in the distance at the mesas and the canyons. I started doing that too. The more you do it. As you get less into climbing, you just get more into exploring. It really just opened up that whole area, because all of those times we were up at the base of these Wingate cliffs, and you're looking off and wondering, “Wow, I wonder what's up in that mesa?” Now, we've actually, in the past 20-25 years, we've taken the time to go explore all of those mesas, or some of those mesas, and some of those canyons. We're still down there all the time, as much as we can, but not nearly as much climbing - just a lot more exploring just seeing what's around the corner, which is really fun.
Matt Jenkins: Places like Bears Ears, obviously, offers a lot to people in general, can you be more specific about these places, is it the intangible or tangible experiences up there?
Tim Coats: For me, it's the human connection to this wild, wild landscape. When you spend time there and start seeing some of the archaeology, you realize that people are coming down with all our comforts with our cooler full of beer, stove, van - van life down there. When you really spend time down there, and you realize that humans had a connection there for 10,000 years - that people have been actually living here full time and living off the land here - you just realize: (a) what brought them here and how did they survive? But also, you know that they have a sense of aesthetic, that they realize just how gorgeous this place was.
It definitely had to speak to them just as much as it speaks to us. It's really interesting to see that human connection being up on top of some mesa that you could just could barely get on top of and you find an arrowhead or potsherd, and things like that. It's just really amazing. It's not just the landscape. It's the human connection to that landscape. It's been there - just really interesting.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think we can do to preserve and protect both the climbing experiences, but the environment there?
Tim Coats: I think as a person, as a human, you have to live a lot lighter on the land - the whole Bears Ears controversy - 100 years from now - nobody's ever said, “Boy, I wish we hadn't preserved as much land as we had.” This is all we've got. We don't have a lot of wild places left.
Matt Jenkins: What do you think we can do as people to preserve and protect both the climbing experiences and the landscape up there?
Tim Coats: I think the most important thing is just to really preserve the wildness that's left, because in 100 years nobody's ever going to say, “Boy, I wish we hadn’t preserved so much wild land.” It's the most valuable thing we have on this planet. There's not going to be any more of it. Whatever little bit of wildness that is left in this land, we really need to take care of it.
Fortunately, the Colorado Plateau has some incredible wild places. We just have to do everything you can to just keep those places wild, because otherwise future generations just aren't going to have that. We can never replace it and it never comes back. It's just incredibly important to preserve that land, keep development away, and just treat it respectfully also. It's not just a playground. It's a really sacred space to a lot of people.
Matt Jenkins: Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you think you want to tell me about?
Tim Coats: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.
Matt Jenkins: Any final thoughts?
Tim Coats: Back to just preserving and taking care of it of the land - it's just super important. The climbing - I think climbers have done a really good job of being stewards of the land. Sometimes it can get a little out of control. But, for the most part, I think they've been really good advocates. I just hope they continue to do that.
Just because the route can be there doesn't necessarily mean it has to be there. I've seen routes that have gone past petroglyphs and bolt lines, sport routes, in the middle of the wilderness. I'm sure they're just amazing routes, but not every route has to be climbed. If you do climb it, try to be as low-impactful as possible, because putting in bolts, leaving chalk marks, trails at the base of crags - popular crags - that's one thing. The more remote places - just be respectful and be respectful of the people that came for you. Try to lessen your impact as much as possible.